Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Courtesy, game, ritual, architecture, engine, dance
The rumba, basic steps
Form might be regarded in various ways: as courtesy, as game, as ritual, as architecture, as engine, and as dance.
Courtesy is a sophisticated, coded way of addressing another and establishing a set of social expectations. Modernity has tended to reject it, partly on the grounds that it might be over-constrictively hierarchical, only to replace it with its own codes, no less constrictive, no less hierarchical, but less willing to be codified in a book of poetic etiquette by an aspiring Emily Post of verse. The very word, etiquette is an object of suspicion, suggesting dishonesty and prissiness. Other cultures’ courtesies are to be honoured, but ours are to be reduced to a knowing minimum. We feel our way to the limits of our liberties and look askance at those who do not recognise them. One would have to be something of a prude to build a case for terza rima, or any other demanding form, entirely on grounds of courtesy.
We may, of course, regard courtesy as a game with all the functions of a game; that is, on the one hand, entertainment, and on the other the symbolic acting through of structured energies that might otherwise be employed in real conflict. Game depends on rule and surprise, pitting the fixed against an element of chance that may amuse or frustrate. The rules of a game don’t produce uniform results or uniform development. No two games of football are exactly the same, though the rules that govern them are identical. Of course the rules themselves may be applied in various ways by the officials or the players. Games are fascinating because of the delicate balance between the structure and the variable. So games in poetry may amuse: the more demanding the rule the greater the amusement. Byron, for example, may amuse by rhyming intellectual with hen pecked you all in 'Don Juan', daring us with the polysyllabic then offering bathetic relief with an ingenious but distinctly unheroic resolution. But, on the symbolic level, the demands of form, serve as recognised sublimations of energy, much as in sport the beauty of the disciplined body in action enacts a desire.
Ritual, as most people recognise, carries enormous psychological significance, whether as superstition that jokes about itself as superstition yet continues in superstition, in terms of routine or of certain lucky items, or as a religious ceremony that conjures the deity or commemorates a sacred name. The meaning of ritual is almost independent of its magical object. It produces its own magic. Whispering a spell over and over again produces the expectation of miraculous change or illumination. Whatever I say three times is true. Weave a circle round him thrice. Shantih, shantih, shantih. The three of terza rima too is a form of ritual. It helps, of course, if you are a believer, for ritual otherwise is simply people behaving strangely.
Architecture in form offers a firm and. importantly, indifferent, structure that can take the weight of ideas, emotions and events. It is indifferent because, once adopted, it is simply there, irrespective of mood or self. If the architecture is wrong the house falls down. Each poetic form imposes its own particular kind of architectural indifference. Terza rima’s begins with courtesy, runs through game and ritual and assumes the form of architecture. The structure of hell, purgatory and paradise is itself an architecture that Dante must explore. The architecture of the verse provides the framework for the language of the poem; its staircases and corridors and rooms and halls. Architecture, as classically understood, depends on some kind of regularity. Goethe said architecture was frozen music.
But terza rima is also the engine that keeps us moving down the passages and chambers, always propelling the poem forward. Of all the formal devices available it is arguably the one with the greatest forward dynamic. Once the engine is engaged it wants to keep going and the reader too moves on, ever mindful of what has been left behind and what is to come, moving on towards the last of the useful metaphors: the dance, so that eventually, as Yeats put it, we cannot tell the dancer from the dance.